When Your Airplane Becomes A Glider

Engine failure is rare (and usually the result of poor fuel management), but if you ever find yourself sitting behind a stopped prop — with concurrent heart stoppage — don’t forget the most important fact: at least the wings are still attached. Among every pilot’s greatest fears is engine failure, but when the engine quits, it’s not what you don’t have, but what you do have that counts

Wings generate lift as long as air is flowing over them — they certainly do not need the engine for that. After all, glider and sailplane pilots fly everyday, never having an engine to start with. Hang gliders (those big kites with pilots strapped to them) surpassed the 300-mile mark without an engine — or fuselage — years ago.

An engine failure can be very distracting, but in that moment of confusion, surprise, and even panic, the pilot must remember to fly the airplane. When things go wrong in the cockpit, they can go wrong fast and this can sweep away a pilot, robbing them of the ability to think clearly. It helps us to have some memory items to fall back on. When all hell is breaking loose around you remember: Fly, Find, then Fix.

FLY: Use the wings that you have, and remember that you are now flying a glider *not* of an airplane. The most important thing is not to let the distraction of the engine failure prevent you from controlling the airplane’s airspeed. Do not get too slow and allow the airplane’s wings to stall. An engine out is one thing, but a stall/spin is quite another. Trim the aircraft for best glide or minimum sink . Use the first if you need more distance and the second if you need more time.

Handled correctly, you have a very high probability of walking away from an engine out emergency. But the probability of surviving a stall/spin accident is very low.

FIND: After the airplane is gliding under control, find a place to land. In the daytime, I prefer an open field to any highway. Why: Highways have unseen power lines that cross them. Besides, you never know what a startled diver will do, so you are introducing more elements that are beyond your control. Select a field and then do everything you can to make a normal ‘traffic pattern’ to that field. Important: If you can make a downwind, base and final to the field, you will be able to call on your traffic pattern judgement in determining if you are too high or too low. If you come at the field with an abnormal approach, you will not be as familiar with how it should look and it will be easy to misjudge your height and position.

FIX: After the airplane is under control, and you are maneuvering toward the field, try to fix or troubleshoot the problem. Most airplanes have an engine loss procedure that includes: carburetor heat, primer in and locked, magnetos both on, mixture rich, fuel selector to fullest tank, and an attempted restart of the engine. Any of these might restart the engine – but each corrective action may distract the you from flying the airplane, so divide your attention carefully and keep the airplane gliding faster than stall speed while troubleshooting.

I always use 1500 AGL as a dividing line. If the engine failure occurs above 1500 AGL then I should have time to troubleshoot after first maintaining flying speed and looking for a place to land. Below 1500 feet, there may be no time for anything else but ‘fly’ and ‘find.’

The conventional engine out procedure also includes making a radio call and switching the transponder to 7700. Of course, making announcements that you have a problem are important – but they do not take precedence over Fly, Find, then Fix. The emergency frequency is 121.5 but, all you care about in an engine out emergency is contact with anyone who can come help you after you get down. If you have already been talking to Unicom, approach control, or even other airplanes in flight, just tell them about your problem, and save the time you would have been switching frequencies for Fly, Find, and Fix.

BOTTOM LINE: You will probably fly your entire life without an engine problem, but if it does happen — remember, the engine doesn’t create lift, anyway. Its wings (and the pilot) that make an airplane fly.